Maria Mejia's childhood in Miami was far from idyllic. By the time she reached 14, Mejia couldn't stand her home environment--which included a strict father and a sexually abusive uncle--so she ran away from home. Mejia says she ended up running with a gang until the age of 18, when she met her first boyfriend.
In the early 1990s, after four years away from home, Mejia decided it was time to turn her life around. She returned to her mother, who by then was separated from her father. Part of the young woman's plan to turn over a new leaf was joining Job Corps, a vocational education program for young people. She went to a Job Corps facility in Kentucky for medical screening and the typical 60 days of training. When the doctor tried to get her to come in to the clinic after the routine screening tests, Mejia initially ignored his requests out of fear; a smoker, Mejia was afraid she had cancer. Instead, when the doctor was finally able to sit her down, she learned that she had HIV.
"I was not a drug user, and back then it was still thought of as a gay man's disease," Mejia says. "It's not that I was sick or anything. I never thought it could happen to me."
Despite being assured that she could stay at Job Corps, Mejia was so devastated that she quit the program and again returned to her mother.
"I wanted to die at home and not in Kentucky," she says. Mejia packed up her life and headed back to Miami. She then broke the news to her mother, who offered her full support. However, Mejia's mother asked her not to tell the rest of her family about her HIV status out of fear that she would be ostracized.
"It came from a good place," Mejia says. "There was a lot of stigma back then. She said, 'I believe you're not going to die from this, but you must not tell anyone. If you get sick, we'll tell them you have another disease. We'll do the research.' "
Mejia, her mother, and her younger brother moved to Colombia, their native country, where she lived for the following decade without medication. Instead, Mejia's mother opened a health food store and used the products to help her daughter live the healthiest life possible. Mejia and her mother did disclose her status to an uncle, a local doctor who regularly monitored her cell counts. Mejia and her family also used their faith to ground them through the rough times.